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Japan evacuates major airport after typhoon wreaks havoc

A major airport that was cut off when a huge typhoon smashed through its sole access road was being evacuated on Wednesday, as Japan grappled with devastation caused by its most powerful storm in a quarter of a century.

Boats and buses were ferrying stranded passengers from Kansai International Airport — one of the country’s busiest  — after thousands of people were forced to spend the night in the partially flooded facility.

At least ten people were killed, and hundreds more injured by Typhoon Jebi as it raked through the major manufacturing area around Osaka — Japan’s second city — wrecking infrastructure and destroying homes.

Winds up to 216 kilometres per hour ripped off roofs, overturned trucks and swept a 2 500-ton tanker into a bridge leading to the airport, the region’s main international gateway and a national transport hub.

The damage to the bridge left the artificial island temporarily cut off, stranding 3 000 travellers and additional staff overnight.

Runways were flooded as high waves washed into the facility on Tuesday, knocking out electricity and inundating buildings.

On Wednesday, boats began ferrying people out of the airport, and buses began to run on one side of the damaged bridge after safety inspections.

“We don’t know how many hours we need to bring everyone out but we’re doing our best to finish it by the end of today,” Kansai airport spokesperson Yurino Sanada told AFP.

She could not confirm how many people had left the airport so far, and there was no indication when the facility, which runs over 400 flights a day, might reopen.

“We had a blackout so there was no air conditioning. It was hot,” a woman told public broadcaster NHK after being ferried to Kobe.

Temperatures have hovered around 30 degrees Celsius. 

“I’d never expected this amount of damage from a typhoon,” she said.

“I couldn’t sleep, but I’m relieved because I thought I might not be able to get out,” another woman told the station.

Local media said the death toll in the storm stood at 11, with over 600 people injured.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, tweeting on his official account, said the government was working to get the airport back online.

“We continue to make utmost efforts to respond to disaster damage and restore infrastructure,” he said.

Trail of destruction

More than 1.2 million people had been advised to leave their homes as Jebi approached the Kansai area — Japan’s industrial heartland — although it was unclear how many had heeded the warnings. Around 16,000 people spent the night in shelters, local media said.

Japan is regularly hit by powerful typhoons in the summer and autumn, many of which cause flooding and landslides in rural areas.

Jebi appears to have caused damage to the region’s infrastructure on an unusual scale.

In the tourist magnet of Kyoto — home to ancient temples and shrines — it brought down part of the ceiling of the main railway station, while in nearby Osaka, the high winds peeled scaffolding from a multi-storey building.

Businesses, factories and schools in the affected area shut down while the storm barrelled across the country, forcing the cancellation of hundreds of flights, ferry services and some bullet trains.

Economists said it was too early to gauge the storm’s impact on local industry, with much depending on how long the airport remained closed.

Around 10 percent of Japan’s exports leave from Kansai airport, said Yusuke Ichikawa, senior economist at Mizuho Research Institute.

“Logistics could be affected as it may take time for Kansai airport to restart operations,” he told AFP.

But with other airports and ports nearby, companies might be able to reroute shipments to minimise disruption, he added.

Despite its strength, the storm was far from the deadliest Japan has seen in recent years.

In 2011, Typhoon Talas killed at least 82 people in the area, while in 2013, a storm that hit south of Tokyo left 40 people dead.

Earlier this year torrential rains lashed the west of the country, sparking flooding that killed more than 200 people as it laid waste to villages and caused hillsides to collapse.

© Agence France-Presse

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